I remember the first time I ate Ma Po tofu. I was dining with a group, planning to share everything that was ordered. Someone ordered tofu! I immediately upped the ante and ordered an extra meat dish. No, I was assured that I would like this; besides, it has meat. OK, I relented, secretly planning to sneak in my extra Yu Shiang Pork order if a flavorless pile of tofu was served. I am happy to say not only was I wrong, but Ma Po tofu has become a favorite dish for me.
What is so good about it? Well, first off, there is a lot of Szechuan peppercorn in it. I find that numbing sensation from Szechuan pepper to be addictive. Then there’s the broad bean chili paste, lots of green onion, ginger, and of course, meat. The dish is almost like a sauce for rice. The tofu binds the flavor elements and softens the texture in the mouth.
I order Ma Po tofu all the time as the measure of any Szechuan kitchen. I wanted to make it at home. There are tons of recipes and variations on this dish. I experimented on my own. I eventually settled in on this version, adapted from the Washington Post Cookbook version of the modestly named “The Best Ma Po Tofu.” It really is a good recipe, but I made some adjustments to tailor it to my tastes.
I reserve small packages of ground pork in the freezer, and we buy large tubs of tofu at our local Korean market. Green onions or leeks are always on hand, either fresh from the garden or in the freezer. And we constantly have a root of ginger in the crisper. The rest is condiments. Everything is always on hand to make this dish as a quick weeknight dinner that we all love.
Weeknight Ma Po Tofu
2t Szechuan pepper, divided
6 oz ground pork
2T grapeseed or peanut oil
1 cup chopped green onions (white and green parts) or leek
3 cloves garlic
1T minced fresh ginger
6T hot broad bean paste
2T naturally brewed low-sodium soy sauce
1T Shaoxing wine
½ cup water
18 oz. soft tofu (3 blocks) cut in ½ to ¾” cubes
Toast the Szechuan peppercorns briefly in a dry skillet until they give off aroma. Move to bowl, and allow to cool. Grind in spice grinder.
Heat the oil in the skillet and brown the meat, breaking it up into fine pieces. When the meat is browned, add half the ground Szechuan pepper. Stir to toast a bit.
Add the green onions, garlic, and ginger. Cook until soft.
Add the hot bean paste. I experimented with different brands, and settled on a blend of two brands, 3T of each. The first is Lee Kum Kee brand; it is pureed and mild in flavor. The second is Union Foods brand, and it is hot with visible pieces of bean and chili in the sauce. Using two sauces allows you to temper the heat for your eaters. Mine prefer the dish milder than me, so I keep that in mind. More on how to spice this up later! Stir in the sauce.
Add the soy sauce and the Shaoxing wine (you can substitute Sake). Bring the pan to a boil. Add the water and simmer. Add the tofu cubes and heat through.
I am partial to sprouted brown rice, so I serve Ma Po tofu over steamed sprouted brown rice. You can serve it over the rice that you prefer. There is a big difference in using high quality rice, so find one that you like. If you really want to get into some unique rice, try Eighth Wonder rice varieties from the ancient Philippines rice terraces. Last time I blended some of their purple sticky rice with my favorite sprouted brown rice for a delicious treat.
Since I like my food spicier than most, I will dust the top of the disk with some of the remaining Szechuan pepper. Maybe add some homemade Southwest Sriracha, too. Go for it.
Variations: Ma Po tofu can be made with other ground meats. Beef is common, but I prefer pork. Venison works really nicely for this dish, too. I experimented with adding other items. Adding some diced eggplant with the aromatic vegetables is really good.